1. Have they done their homework? If you’re like me, you always hated hearing, “Dawn Renee, have you done your homework?” Well, it’s time to turn the tables. “Mother. Father. Have you done your homework?” Do your parents have an estate plan? Have they drafted medical and financial powers of attorney in case they lose the ability to manage without assistance? Do they have a last will and testament? What are they waiting for? Do they think they’re getting younger? This isn’t to be approached cavalierly and it’s not about prying into whether you are going to have to fight with your sister over Great Maw-Maw’s Civil War diamonds. Incidentally, you aren’t entitled to anything that belongs to your parents. They might need to liquidate it to pay for their care: A potential future inheritance does not a retirement plan make. This is about knowing that their legal affairs are in order and their hard-earned assets are protected and available when needed to support them.
2. What do you know about their business? Whether either of you really likes it or not, you may be in charge of it one day. Do they have a list of their assets, bank account locations, important paperwork, valuable art, and collectibles somewhere that you could find it if you had to take over in an emergency? Your parents may be very private people. They might be secretive to the point of paranoia. You may not even know if your dad gets a pension from those rotten scoundrels who never appreciated his hard work all those years. Suggest that they make an inventory and quick reference guide for their household (you know, like how to not kill their orange trees if one of them is hospitalized) and make sure someone knows where to find it if it’s ever needed. You don’t have to pry; just encourage them to make the list on their own and check back with them (read: “keep pestering them”) until you know it’s been done.
3. What do you know about their health? It’s very common for parents to name their adult children as their healthcare agent in the event they become incapacitated. Most likely, you will have to take over suddenly if you ever have to make healthcare decisions for Mom or Dad. You should get to know their general diagnoses and know where to locate a list of their medications and medical doctors if called upon in a crisis. I know, you don’t need to hear any more about Mom’s hemorrhoids or Dad’s prostate than you already do. But do you know their surgical history? Their blood type? What did their parents die from? Did Dad have a heart attack back in ’97 or was that just bad gas? These things you never thought you’d need to know can suddenly be at the crux of an emergency room treatment plan. Next time Mom starts grumbling about the pain in her posterior, use it as a segue-way to this important talk.
4. How do they feel about death and dying? Do they want a burial or a cremation? Do they want religious services or memorial donations to be given to a certain charity? Funeral planning is, admittedly, a morbid topic that most families prefer to avoid. It’s best, however, to make funeral arrangements ahead of time so families aren’t overwhelmed at the time of need. Maybe there is a family plot back east that where they always assumed they would rest in eternal slumber. Even if they live in Arizona, that is easy enough to arrange ahead of time, but assumptions won’t get the job done. Buying funeral insurance locks in the pricing for most items at today’s dollars, too, so a funeral is always going to be less expensive to buy today than years from now.
5. How do they feel about not dying? Of course nobody wants to die, but it’s our one guarantee in life. Statistically very few people die suddenly and unexpectedly. For most of humankind, death is a process; sometimes a very prolonged process. What kind of end of life care do your parents want? Do they want aggressive treatment no matter what quality of life it produces? Do they want to avoid ever going to the hospital if at all possible? Carefully drafted advance directives, sometimes called a “Living Will”, will provide loved ones with guidance to a degree. But nothing replaces a true understanding of what Mom and Dad really want if they are no longer capable of giving direction. Hospice organizations can help with these conversations and usually have tons of literature on end of life topics that might facilitate these important conversations. “Conversations” is intentionally plural. People’s feelings on dying tend to change the closer they are to that irreversible event. Learning what a person wants for the end of their life involves an ongoing dialogue. Sometimes it’s just listening to what our parents say. If mom gets a cancer diagnosis and says she is going to fight for her life with everything inside of her, that’s a directive. If Mom has a recurrence of cancer after battling it for ten years and she says she’s just ready to go to heaven to be with Dad if the Good Lord sees fit that it’s her time, that’s also a directive.
About the Author: Dawn R. Walters is an Arizona Licensed Fiduciary in Private Practice and a National Master Guardian. She has served as guardian for vulnerable adults for nearly a decade. She educates others on topics including guardianship, rights advocacy, elder abuse remedies and awareness, and life planning. She is a magna cum laude graduate of the University of Texas, holding dual degrees in Government and Latin American Studies. She was recently elected to the Board of Directors for the Arizona Fiduciaries Association.